When Boston’s bidders made their winning pitch for their city to be the American candidate to host the 2024 Summer Olympics, the local universities were a central theme. Not only are they the classroom for the youth of the world, their athletic facilities and dormitories also are the centerpiece of what originally was designed to be a walkable Games using existing venues.
With the Boston 2024 committee due to unveil its revised plan by the end of the month, its officials still are in the early stages of negotiating with at least nine institutions that have been penciled in to stage nearly a dozen sports and to provide accommodations for athletes, officials, and media.
“You’re not going to have signed contracts,” said Richard Davey, the committee’s chief executive officer, in reference to the upcoming deadline. “But no one has kicked us out of their office and said, ‘No way, Jose.’ ”
After collecting a folder full of noncommittal assents last year when they asked university administrators whether their facilities might be available for Games a decade in the future, bid officials recently have been having more detailed conversations and touring potential venues.
“It’s fair to say the collaboration is a lot more solid at this point,” said Davey, who succeeded Daniel O’Connell in late January.
Collaboration, though, has not yet led to commitment. The 2024 committee last month made a site visit to Boston University, which is slated to stage badminton and team handball and also to supply media housing.
“There was nothing specifically agreed to,” said BU spokesman Steve Burgay, “and it was too early for us to know what the outcome might be.”
Without the college facilities, the Boston quest likely would collapse, since the committee has vowed that no public money will be used to build venues. And with three sports recently moved out of the city — beach volleyball to Quincy, shooting to Billerica, and sailing to New Bedford — the campus sites are vital to retaining the compact layout that set Boston apart from sprawling Los Angeles, the 1932 and 1984 host that most Olympic insiders assumed would be picked for a third time by the US Olympic Committee.
“It’s fair to say there are changes,” said Davey, “but the iconic colleges and universities will play important roles.”
The most essential role belongs to Harvard, which still is penciled in for half a dozen sports even after tennis was shifted to Dorchester’s Harambee Park. That would mean the university would not only have to turn over much of its riverside Soldiers Field complex, including Harvard Stadium (field hockey) and Gordon Indoor Track (fencing), but also the former Beacon Park rail yards, which would be the location of the temporary pools for swimming, synchronized swimming, diving, and water polo. In return, Harvard would receive $3.6 million, according to bid documents.
“To date, Harvard has made no decisions nor given any commitments regarding the possible use of any specific venues in support of Boston 2024,” university spokesman Jeff Neal said in a statement. “As preliminary conversations have continued, we have made clear that any participation by Harvard must remain aligned with our academic mission and long-term planning goals.
“No Harvard facilities, institutional funds, or fund-raising efforts will be diverted away from those goals for purposes related to the Olympics.”
While Harvard has been tapped for the most venues by far, the role of the University of Massachusetts, the only public institution in the mix, is considerable. The Boston campus will be the site of the Olympic village, and Lowell’s Tsongas Center will host the boxing competition. When sailing was switched from Boston Harbor to Buzzards Bay, the Dartmouth student residences were lined up as housing for nearly 400 competitors.
Though the main Amherst campus isn’t yet on the list, it has been mentioned as an alternate site for rowing, canoeing, cycling, and the equestrian events, as well as dormitory space.
“The UMass campuses are enthusiastic about the possibilities,” said incoming president Martin Meehan, adding that “increasing the international profile of UMass is extremely important.”
As the 2024 venue plan continues to shape-shift, the committee is exploring other campus options in case the original choices don’t work out.
“We definitely are giving consideration to other universities for venues and dormitory space,” said Davey. “Our perspective is, the more the merrier.”
Several colleges already are providing both primary and secondary options. UMass Boston is the backup for the main press and international broadcast centers tentatively destined for the Seaport District. Tufts is the aquatics alternative. Boston College, whose Conte Forum would be a women’s basketball site, is a possibility for indoor volleyball. And Boston University’s Nickerson Field is the reserve field hockey alternative, as Agganis Arena is for rhythmic gymnastics.
By using campus facilities, the 2024 committee not only can avoid expensive land acquisition and construction costs but also can underline the role that the universities have played in making Boston a major international destination and a competitive rival to Paris, Rome, and Hamburg for the Games, which will be awarded in 2017.
“One of the strengths is showing off the relative youth of our city,” said Davey, “and the great educational institutions that are our backbone.”
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.